I have temporarily taken in two Ukrainian refugees and suddenly find that, for very little sacrifice, my stock has soared. People who have regarded me as a hard-nosed, right-wing bastard are suddenly confused and struggling to readjust. A woke young relative who has despaired of my ignorant, reactionary views on Black Lives Matter, climate change, gender and so on suddenly sees a halo above my head. My mother-in-law on the Costa Brava reports mentioning that her daughter and son-in-law have Ukrainian refugees is like being sprinkled with gold dust. Her social circle is in awe. Never have I received so much praise for doing hardly anything at all.
It started when I dropped into the Ukrainian social club in Holland Park Avenue and said I would be willing to take in a refugee mother and child for a month. I had read how bureaucratic the government scheme was and reckoned there might be some refugees already in the UK needing accommodation now. I left my contact details feeling mildly heroic and expecting to hear no more about it. To my astonishment, two days later, I got a telephone call from someone called Tatiana saying that she was from the social club and had a mother and child who needed somewhere to stay. A few days after that, Nadiia and Antonina were installed in the former bedrooms of my grown-up daughters.
I sternly made it clear to them and everybody else who would listen that they were only going to stay for a month but it turns out it will actually be for seven weeks. Yet that is no inconvenience. They are so nice, eager to please and helpful that they are more of an asset than a burden. My wife has announced that she is going to cry when they go and that they feel like part of the family.
Nadiia, the mother, regularly makes us varyniki, which are similar to Polish pierogi and have a more distant resemblance to ravioli. But they are far more delicious than anything of that sort I have had before.
Nadiia is an artist and I suggested that, although it was beneath her level, she might repaint the garden furniture and I could pay her some cash which surely must be much needed. She jumped at the chance to do the painting but has refused to accept a penny. So I am inadvertently getting a free paint job.
It turns out she is also a keen gardener. I am quite controlling about my patches of garden which I maintain in a formal, low-maintenance, almost monochrome green. But I came home one day to find pink annuals dotted about. Though I am struggling to channel Nadiia’s gardening passion, my wife is thrilled with the sudden influx of bright colours. I am beginning to think they are ganging up on me but it is wholly bearable and secretly fun.
We have been in touch with various friends and friends of friends to find people who might take Nadiia and Antonina after us – either for just a month or longer. Fortunately two households have come up trumps. There is even a hint of rivalry between them to secure these prized guests.
The only thing I have gone out of my way to do has been to help them find a school or university for Antonina. She is 17 in the summer and, under the Ukrainian system, would be going to university in September. So she is between sixth form and university level. What makes it easier is that she’s exceptionally clever. She has won prizes open to all Ukrainian students of her age in English, Chinese and physics. She is fluent in Russian and speaks English and Mandarin well.
I asked them who is the most celebrated Ukrainian author. They told me it was Taras Shevchenko. A few days later, Antonina let me know that she had just created an English language website titled ‘11 Ukrainian literary classics you must read’.
It is an education and a pleasure to have them. And it’s a bonus that all these people who have despised me over the years suddenly think I might be worth talking to after all. In fact, it’s wider than that. The invasion of Ukraine has made many people from both left and right recall that the things they disagree about are less important than the values they share: a belief in democracy, the right to national self-determination, freedom of the press and an open society. Yes, our society is not as free and open as it once was. But it is a great deal freer than that of Russia or the society which Russia is seeking to impose by force on Ukraine.
Meanwhile, as I bask in undeserved praise, we all know who the real heroes are: the people fighting against the Russian invaders, holed up in basements with their food running out or living on the front line in Spartan conditions, risking their lives every day – men like Antonina’s father and brother.